In 1967, Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica put together an installation at Rio de Janeiro's "New Brazilian Objectivity" show featuring sand, trees, gravel, fabric panels and a cage holding two live parrots. Visitors were encouraged to take off their shoes and stroll through the exhibit, which Oiticica called "Tropicália." A year later, Brazilian musicians Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes and Caetano Veloso borrowed the name for a pop album, and the Tropicália movement was born.
The music, art, theater, fashion and architecture of that movement is on glorious display in "Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture" at the Bronx Museum (through January 28, then possibly traveling to Brazil). Part cultural celebration and part political protest, Tropicália was a response by Brazil's counterculture to the country's increasingly repressive regime and the rise of favelas . Two of Oiticica's installations, which he termed "penetrables," are recreated in the show, and they epitomize the brief movement's sensibility: sunny, playful and inviting, but also politically charged. While the parrots are fun and the sand feels good between the toes, Oiticica's "Tropicália" is no day at the beach. The fabric-panel passageways evoke the warrenlike structure of the favelas, and the recorded music and TV at the end of the maze comment on the commercialization of Brazilian culture.
Many of "Tropicália's" exhibits encourage interaction. In Oiticica's"Eden," visitors can dip their toes in a wading pool, and crawl through sand. Lygia Pape's "Roda dos prazeres" (Wheel of delights) invites visitors to sample colorful flavored liquids from a circular arrangement of bowls.
Made with primary colors, simple shapes and a mix of text and images, many of the works outwardly resemble American pop art of the 1960s and '70s. Antônio Dias's cartoonish paintings echo Roy Lichtenstein's comic panels, while Rubens Gerchman's large red Formica and wood sculpture of the word "lute" recalls Robert Indiana's "love" paintings and sculptures. The difference is that " lute " is Portuguese for fight. Despite the laid-back vibe of much of the art, the message is one of resistance, not acceptance. Similarly, Oiticica's red fabric banner bearing the words be an outlaw, be a hero below an image of a man's body is not the bold, T shirt-ready Andy Warhol-style graphic it first appears to be. It depicts the bullet-ridden body of Cara de Cavalo ("Horse Face"), a renegade folk hero from the favelas who was gunned down by the police. When Veloso and Gil displayed the banner at a 1968 concert, they were arrested. In that light, the banner becomes less pop, more provocation.
Some of the most accessible items in "Tropicália" are not artworks but artifacts that evoke the infectious exuberance of the period: vibrant, sexy album covers; wildly graphic posters for schlocky films like "Meteorango Kid, the Intergalactic Hero"; geometric-print dresses created by French manufacturer Rhodia for fashion-show parades through the streets of São Paulo.
The show also includes an international assortment of contemporary artists making Tropicália-inspired work. The video "Disoriented Bahia" by French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster depicts cashews, fruit, fabric and records washing ashore on a Brazilian beach like so much cultural seaweed. A sinuous, psychedelic mural by the New York-based Brazilian artist who goes by the name "assume vivid astro focus" perhaps best synthesizes the Tropicália experience. Looking at it one can imagine attending a Veloso and Gil concert wearing a Rhodia jumpsuit, with Oiticica's flag flying high above the stagee